Can Any Good Thing Come From Nazareth?

Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
And Nathanael said unto him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
Philip saith unto him, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).

Location factors heavily into our assumptions and judgments about people. Imagine you are told about a group of people: one person grew up in Appalachia, another in Manhattan in New York City, another in south Alabama, another in Texas, another in Wisconsin, and another from rural Nevada. In all likelihood you have already come up with some concept of who these people are based on their location of origin and raising. Yes, there will be times when those assumptions will prove false, yet how much more often do they prove true?

This tendency is nothing new; it went on in first century Israel as well. People would be judged based upon whether they grew up in Judea, Samaria, or Galilee (cf. Acts 2:7), whether in more urbanized areas or more rural areas. And, then as now, the more remote and less urban the location, the more likely people were to look down on those who came from there.

So it is with Nazareth in Galilee. Galilee itself was seen as remote, away from the epicenter of Judaism in Jerusalem, not known for erudition or much civilization. Within Galilee itself, Nazareth barely registers, receiving no mention from Jewish sources before the third century of our era. This insignificance led some skeptics to doubt whether Nazareth existed at all in the first century CE, but archaeological evidence does indicate the place was inhabited. It is now believed that Nazareth was a village of no more than 500 in the days when Jesus grew up there. Nazareth is about 16 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee; it is not near the Mediterranean Sea and would not be on a lot of travel routes. It is evident why Nazareth would easily be despised in the eyes of others: it is in the backwoods or out in the sticks, a small village. In the eyes of more educated and urban Jews, the Nazarenes would have been judged as ignorant at best and perhaps as simple-minded sinners at worst.

Philip is a Galilean whom Jesus had called, hailing from Bethsaida on the coast of the Sea of Galilee (John 1:43-44). Based upon what he has seen and/or heard, he is immediately convinced regarding who Jesus is: he finds Nathanael and tells him how he has found the “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote,” otherwise known as the Messiah, which was the hope of all Israel in these days. We can imagine how excited Nathanael would be at the prospect of meeting the One whom God had promised! And then Philip identifies who He is: Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:15).

For Philip, “of Nazareth” is not meant to be degrading or demeaning, but simply a way of identifying which Jesus is being described. Both “Jesus” and “Joseph” were quite popular names among the Jews of the first century; therefore, to say then that Jesus is the Messiah would likely prompt the response, “Which Jesus?”. “Jesus the son of Joseph” would likely accurately describe many other Jewish men of the day. Yet “Jesus of Nazareth” was unique: if nothing else, no other Jesus in Nazareth was known for doing anything that might make him to be considered a possible Messiah.

Nevertheless, all Nathanael now knows about Jesus is that his friend Philip thinks He is the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote in the Hebrew Bible, and that He is from Nazareth. And so he asks his famous question: can any good thing come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)?

Nathanael’s reaction is honest; perhaps such is what partly prompts Jesus’ declaration that Nathanael is an Israelite “in whom is no guile” (John 1:47). There is some dispute as to whether Nathanael asks the question on account of Nazareth’s relative insignificance or possibly because Nazareth has a reputation for sinfulness or immorality. The answer depends on whether “good thing” should be understood in a “moral” sense or in a more “qualitative” sense. He also might have the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem in view as well (cf. Micah 5:2, John 7:40-52): how can such a good thing as the Messiah come out of Nazareth or even Galilee, since the Messiah is to come from Bethlehem and ostensibly grow up in the environs of Jerusalem? Since we do not know a whole lot about Nazareth’s reputation in the first century, we cannot know for certain, but we can see clearly that Nathanael is judging the situation based upon the stereotype and/or geographic prejudice.

But Nathanael does not allow that prejudice to get in the way: he does not dismiss Philip’s claim out of hand, and he quickly ascertains how special Jesus is, to the point of making similar declarations regarding Him as Philip did (cf. John 1:47-51). Nathanael learned quickly that yes, a good thing can come from Nazareth; in fact, the greatest thing of all has come from Nazareth!

Nathanael’s story provides good reminders for us about judgment. It is easy to fall prey to snap judgments about people based upon many factors, including geography and the culture inherent in geography, but geography need not be destiny. It remains true that stereotypes exist for a reason, but not everyone fits the stereotype. Imagine if we had been in Nathanael’s place so long ago: if we strictly judged everyone by their place of origin, we would have rejected Jesus the Christ, confident in our misguided assumption that no good thing could come out of Nazareth. How terrible would have been our fate!

Jesus warns us about judgment (cf. Matthew 7:1-4), encouraging us not to judge by appearance but to render right judgment (John 7:24). We may not be able to resist every caricature or stereotype, but we have no right to condemn the lot of a group of people on account of superficial factors. Let us maintain a spirit like Nathanael’s, willing to judge on the merits and character of a person, and so honor and glorify God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Contend for the Faith

Beloved, while I was giving all diligence to write unto you of our common salvation, I was constrained to write unto you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints (Jude 1:3).

Jude would have much rather written a different letter than the one he wrote. Perhaps he wanted to speak about the hope and joy he shared with his fellow believers; maybe he wanted to remind them of the story of what Jesus had done for them and the promises of what He would do in the future. Regardless, more pressing issues were at hand.

Teachers promoting false doctrines and practices were afoot. They sought to turn God’s grace into sensuality, denying the truth regarding Jesus (Jude 1:5). They defiled the flesh on account of their vain imaginings and rejected proper authority (Jude 1:8). They reviled that which they did not understand and lived according to their “instincts” (Jude 1:10). They grumbled, were never satisfied, boasted, and sought their own advantage (Jude 1:16). And they were not afar off, leaving Christians alone; they remained in the midst of the Christians and sought to advance their ideas among them (Jude 1:12).

Many such teachers were likely advancing Gnostic ideas, professing to have “greater” and more esoteric “knowledge” of spiritual truth than can be found in the pages of Scripture. These teachings did not respect the unity of the body, soul, and spirit; they were especially dismissive of the body. Some later Gnostic groups would insist on strict discipline upon the body; other groups, however, taught that whatever one did in the body would not touch or tarnish the soul, and it became powerful justification for committing all sorts of immorality and doing whatever felt right.

This was not the same message which Jesus and the Apostles promoted. Jude felt compelled to remind the Christians of that important difference.

He encouraged the Christians to “contend” for the faith (Jude 1:3). To believe, maintain, promote, and teach the faith is not automatic; it takes effort. In the face of false doctrines and idols it will be quite the struggle to stand firm in the message of Jesus. Christians must resist the temptation to compromise the message, to distort the message through emphasizing some aspects over others, and to water it down to seem more palatable. Christians must also stand firm against the attempts by others to adapt and manipulate the faith, whether people claim to have received superior insights or deny some of the claims made regarding Jesus and the faith in Scripture.

While maintaining and promoting the faith will demand struggle, it need not demand contentiousness or ungodliness in argument. There are good reasons why Paul lists contentiousness and outbursts of anger as works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). We are to make a defense for our hope, but it must be done with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). One cannot promote the Gospel with one’s words if one’s demeanor, attitude, and perhaps even conduct are more consistent with worldliness, ungodliness, and the Evil One!

Jude has good reason to exhort the Christians to contend for the faith, because it is “the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3). The novel interpretations and “insights” of the Gnostics were not part of that which was delivered “once for all.” We can see the core message of the Gospel declared from the very beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:14-38; the next twenty years would show the advancement of that message first just among Jews but then also among the Gentiles. Thus the implications of the Gospel and to whom it should be promoted were clarified in those first few years, but the message remained the same (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). God did not intend to make continuous revelation regarding the Gospel and how we are to follow after Jesus; the very fact that Jesus lived for a particular period of time, died, was raised from the dead, but then ascended to the Father exemplifies this. What more can be known about the nature and character of Jesus that is not somehow already revealed by Jesus and the Apostles? What more is necessary to promote the Gospel than was necessary when Peter, Paul, and the others promoted it in the first century? If it is all about following after Jesus and to walk as He walked (1 John 2:6), what can be added to what has already been established?

The message was delivered to the saints, and these are Jude’s concern. He wants to make sure that they remain in God’s love, seeking Jesus’ mercy, and seeking to show mercy and to save others in return (Jude 1:20-23). They are to stand firm against the false teachings promoted in their midst, but they must always remember how God is the Judge, and we all remain in need of grace and mercy (cf. Romans 14:1-13, James 4:12, Jude 1:20-21).

There have always been people who have sought to distort the message of the Gospel for their own ends; there always will be. Therefore, believers must engage in the struggle to maintain, preserve, and promote the faith delivered once for all to the saints. We must not compromise it, distort it, or water it down, but we must also never betray it by using ungodly methods while struggling to defend it and advance it. Let us contend for the faith, honoring and glorifying God through our thoughts, attitudes, words, and deeds!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Calm in the Storm

And on that day, when even was come, he saith unto them, “Let us go over unto the other side.”
And leaving the multitude, they take him with them, even as he was, in the boat. And other boats were with him. And there ariseth a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the boat, insomuch that the boat was now filling. And he himself was in the stern, asleep on the cushion:
and they awake him, and say unto him, “Teacher, carest thou not that we perish?”
And he awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, “Peace, be still.”
And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.
And he said unto them, “Why are ye fearful? Have ye not yet faith?”
And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41).

The storm is perhaps one of the most powerful yet ephemeral forces in God’s creation. In whatever its manifestation–thunderstorm, tornado/cyclone, sea squall, hurricane/typhoon, tsunami, blizzard–we experience the raw power of nature, see most aspects of civilization grind to a halt, and sometimes experience great loss. And then, after a few minutes, hours, or days, it will be gone. The devastation and ruin remain, eerily illuminated by a bright shining sun and what seems to be the hope and promise of a new day.

A storm, by its very nature, is tempestuous; for thousands of years they have struck fear into the hearts of men. Facing the elements in the midst of a storm is the type of thing of which nightmares are made! In the midst of the tempest, stillness, calm, and peace seem far away.

While going about to the various cities and villages in Galilee, Jesus decides to travel across the Sea of Galilee with His disciples (Mark 4:35-41). The Sea of Galilee is only about 13 miles long and 8 miles wide, hardly something you would think would cause anyone much distress. But we must remember that in the ancient world most boats tried to stay very close to land and did not venture out into any open sea; their boats were much more at the mercy of the elements than many ships today. And even if the Sea of Galilee does not seem spectacularly large, you do not want to be in the middle of it when a storm comes through. Wind, rain, and sea do not mix well.

Jesus and the disciples were on a boat, and other boats were with them; it seems as if there was no expectation of any storm. Nevertheless, a storm arose, and it was a powerful one: the boat was covered by the waves and was taking on water. They would capsize if nothing were done; the odds of them surviving in the storm-tossed waves were slim. Upbraid the disciples for declaring that they were about to die all you want; if you were in that boat at that moment, odds are you would be saying the same thing!

In the midst of it all, Jesus is sleeping! He might have been quite tired; perhaps there is some allusion to Jonah and his sleeping in the midst of a storm (cf. Jonah 1:5). Jesus has no reason to be afraid, and He knows it. The storm does not bother Him. He sleeps, therefore, waiting for His disciples to finally show their faith. After all, it is not as if the storm just happens to come upon Jesus unawares. He knew the storm was coming before He ever got into the boat. He wanted to cross over anyway even with the knowledge of what was about to occur!

The disciples thought they were perishing, and looking at things from a human, physical, earthly perspective, they were. In nature storms tend to persist until they are over; they do not quit halfway through, save for the eye of a hurricane. The situation seemed extremely dire. They no doubt did all they could until the moment when they could do no more. Then they turned to Jesus!

How gentle or sharp Jesus’ rebuke is toward the disciples is challenging to discern on the basis of the text itself, but it is a rebuke nonetheless. He wants to know why they are afraid; do they not yet have faith (Mark 4:40)? Or, as Matthew renders it, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 8:26). The question is evidently rhetorical, for they were afraid because they were of little faith.

Their response reinforces Jesus’ claim: they are astounded. “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41). It is not as if the disciples are completely unacquainted with Jesus; they have been following Jesus, listening to Him preach and teach, seeing Him work all sorts of miracles, healing all manner of illnesses, and generally going about doing the things the Messiah would do. Sure, they believed in Jesus. But their faith was little. They did not fully trust Jesus as One having all authority over the creation which He helped make.

The disciples went wrong because they first tried to do everything they could without Jesus’ help. They called upon Jesus only when nothing else could be done. Imagine how much effort and distress could have been eliminated had they turned to Jesus as soon as the storm began to swell!

We still experience all kinds of storms in life. It is certainly good to call upon God in prayer when in the midst of a thunderstorm, hurricane, or something of the sort, but we certainly should not lose faith if our petitions for the immediate end of the storm do not come to pass. Yet it is in the more metaphorical “storms” of life where the lesson of Jesus and His disciples really hits home.

These “storms” come in many forms. Perhaps we or someone we love contracts a terrible illness or receives a dire prognosis; we may find ourselves persecuted because of our stand for the Lord; we may have lost our jobs; perhaps someone we love has recently died. Maybe we have more bills than we have funds; perhaps we are caught up in some addiction or strongly tempted by pleasures. Whatever this “storm” might be and however it may have started, it really represents a test of sorts, a catalyst to demonstrate just what kind of faith we have.

We will be tempted to act just like the disciples did. When we are confronted with the “storm,” we will find it easier to hunker down and start doing everything we can in order to withstand and endure it. Perhaps we will be able to endure it for a long time; perhaps we might even weather one or two “storms” through our own strength (or so we think). But the “storm” or the time in the “storm” will come when it is clear that there is nothing else we can do. If we then turn to God and expect Him to now deliver us from our “storm,” what kind of faith have we shown? It is a little faith; it does not truly trust in God and His mighty power, but our own. Maybe God will rescue us despite ourselves. Even if He does not, it does not mean God has failed or is somehow deficient. The deficiency is our own.

We should instead use such an opportunity to demonstrate and increase our faith (cf. James 1:1-4, 1 Peter 1:3-9). From the beginning of the “storm” until the end we should petition God through Jesus our Lord and entrust ourselves to Him and His power. This does not mean that we sit idly by and do nothing, but it also does not mean that we frantically try every avenue without consideration of and petition to the Lord. Perhaps God will rebuke that storm and peace will prevail; perhaps you will still need to weather the storm, but through God in Christ you can have the internal peace, calm, and stillness to persevere.

If we truly believe in God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, we will glorify Him for having the power over the creation and power over every situation no matter how dire it may seem, and we will entrust ourselves to Him and His goodness. The “storms” of life, just like the storms we see in nature, are ephemeral; they will pass away. Sunlight will again shine down on us. Will we be exposed as having little faith or as being full of faith? Will we maintain composure and true peace and stillness despite the storm? It all depends on whether we believe in Jesus in pretense alone or whether we truly trust in Him as Lord and Savior. Let us exhibit faith even in the “storms” of life, persevere in hope, and glorify God in all circumstances!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Two or Three Witnesses

At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is to die be put to death; at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death (Deuteronomy 17:6).

God exhibits concern for fairness and justice as He provides legislation for Israel through Moses. Many of the laws involve serious matters with life-or-death consequences for the defendant. In Deuteronomy 17:2-5, Moses provides a case law regarding anyone who is found guilty of having committed idolatry and served other gods. Such people are to be put to death. But there is one caveat given: there must be at least two or three witnesses. One witness is not sufficient to establish guilt and thus execution. Furthermore, even if there are at least two witnesses, the witnesses must be the first one to throw the stones of execution (Deuteronomy 17:7). All of this serves to underlie the seriousness of not just capital offenses but also any accusations thereof.

This is wise policy. It might be tempting for one person to bear false witness against his neighbor in order to gain some advantage, exact revenge, or on account of some other nefarious purpose. It is not foolproof; situations could be imagined in which two or more people decide to conspire against someone and bear false witness, as some of the Jewish people themselves imagined in the apocryphal story of Daniel and Susanna. Nevertheless, in such circumstances, their stories could be proven as inconsistent to their own detriment (as the aforementioned story attempted to make clear).

Yet it also protects the defendant even in cases where a person gives testimony honestly but not according to reality. Human memory is not like a video camera accurately capturing every moment and then perfectly archiving the information for later use; our memories can change slightly, especially if prompted by suggestion. One person could see something, honestly believe the person was committing a capital crime, but be mistaken. That is far less likely to be true if two or more people saw the same offense.

There is also value in having the witnesses be the ones to begin the execution. It is one thing to make accusations and let others do the “dirty work”; it is quite another to have to take the stone in your hand yourself and throw it at the accused. This is especially true when everyone knows everyone, as was likely the case in most Israelite villages and towns. This was a serious matter: it required strong commitment to the principles God set forth in the Law, but it also required absolute certainty of the guilt of the accused.

This is not a principle abandoned after the end of the Law. Bringing two or three witnesses is the second phase of the attempt to reconcile with a brother who has sinned (cf. Matthew 18:15-17). Paul warned the Corinthians of the matter in 2 Corinthians 13:1; he exhorts Timothy to not hear any accusation against an elder of the church except if there be two or three witnesses in 1 Timothy 5:19. Serious matters require validation by more than one witness!

The principle is not just valid in terms of legal matters and capital offenses: it is a good principle by which to live our lives. Accusations should require validation from more than one source.

We humans have a habit of playing “judge, jury, and executioner” with others. We are tempted to confuse our subjective perceptions with objective reality. It is easy for us to be sure that someone else acts in uncharitable ways, does not like us, does things to injure us, and so on and so forth. Perhaps there are times when such persons actually do harbor ill-will, but many times it is just a matter of mistaken impressions or misunderstandings of intention. But the feelings of jealousy, envy, and hostility engendered by these judgments prove toxic to marriages, friendships, business partnerships, family relationships, etc.

At such times we must remind ourselves how we judge ourselves by our intentions but others by their actual performance, or, as Jesus put it, we see everyone else’s specks in their eye while missing the log in our own (cf. Matthew 7:3-5). There is a reason why people with logs in their eyes are not trusted to provide reliable testimony on the witness stand! It proves too easy to project all sorts of negative motivations and intentions on others when it is quite possible and perhaps likely that no ill will was intended. Just because we feel wronged does not mean that we actually have been wronged; just because we feel as if the other person is not well disposed toward us does not make it so.

Far too often too many people make too much out of quite a little. We do well to consider the wise standard of having two or three witnesses in regards to serious matters, and not be so quick to malign and judge others on the basis of our subjective perceptions. Let us wisely give others the benefit of the doubt, establishing all things by the mouth of two or three witnesses!

Ethan R. Longhenry

I Believe! Help My Unbelief!

“And oft-times it hath cast him both into the fire and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us.”
And Jesus said unto him, “If thou canst! All things are possible to him that believeth.”
Straightway the father of the child cried out, and said, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24).

Desperation can be a powerful driver.

The child suffered terribly from a “dumb spirit” according to Mark 9:17-22. Because of it the child would foam at the mouth, grind his teeth, and become rigid, and that would count for a good day. At other times the demon sought to compel the child to kill himself by casting himself into a fire or into the sea!

This had been going on for some time; the father had seen his son experience this “from childhood.” Perhaps the child was now a teenager or in his twenties; the text does not tell us.

We can only imagine how the father felt when he saw his son experience such suffering and misery. He was powerless to stop it; it must have caused great anguish of soul. It would not be at all surprising if the father had gone to great lengths to find someone, anyone, anything that could somehow alleviate his son’s difficulties. And yet, in all those years, nothing.

He hears that Jesus is nearby, and takes his son. Jesus had been up on the mountain; His disciples attempted to cast out the demons but proved unable (Mark 9:2-18). Yet another disappointment.

Jesus comes upon the scene upon coming down from the mountain. The father makes his plea before Him: if you can do something, please have compassion and help.

Jesus’ answer focuses on the father’s conditional statement: “if you can.” He declares all things are possible for one who believes.

And the father’s answer resounds throughout time: I believe! Help my unbelief!

On the surface, the statement seems contradictory; if he believes, unbelief should not be a problem. If he maintains “unbelief,” how can it be that he believes? If belief were only a matter of mental assent to a proposition, the statement would be contradictory: you either accept the idea that Jesus can help or you do not.

Yet faith has always been more than a matter of mentally agreeing to the truth of a proposition. Faith demands trust and confidence, and the statement makes complete sense when we understand belief as trust.

The way the man phrases his request speaks volumes. “If you can.” He has his doubts, less because of Jesus, and more because of his frequent disappointments. His son has been grievously stricken for years; it is hard to maintain hope or confidence for recovery with every passing seizure and every failed attempt at a cure.

Notice that Jesus corrects but does not upbraid the man. This is not the same situation as when the disciples request more faith (cf. Luke 17:5-6), during which time the disciples doubted how they could accomplish what Jesus was saying. In this situation Jesus finds a man who has, to a large degree, lost faith in the ability of his son to be healed. Jesus wants him to hold onto that faith; that trust is what will help to effect the cure.

The man has some trust in Jesus; he cries out, “I believe!”. But he knows exactly what Jesus is saying; he understands how his trust and confidence must be stronger. That is why he cries out, “Help my unbelief!”.

The man was justified in placing his faith in Jesus; it required much power, and the young man for a moment seemed all but dead, but the demon was cast out, and the young man was made whole (Mark 9:25-29).

This man’s example provides a great testimony for the rest of us. We all experience various forms of challenges in our lives. We might personally suffer or witness the sufferings of loved ones. We may have deficiencies, unfortunate habits, dark secrets, or other spiritual maladies which cause great despair. We may seek healing and redemption from all sorts of places and come up short. With every setback and every failed cure it is easier and easier to lose hope and faith in a cure.

It is easy to describe Jesus as the cure-all. Yes, Jesus provides the promise that all things are possible for the one who believes (Mark 9:23), but we should not try to apply this in simplistic ways. Good people who trust in Jesus still have difficulties, challenges, and forms of suffering.

Yet it remains true that we can fall into the same trap as the man and put conditionals on what God is able to do. God is always able. There are many points in our lives when we can cry out, like this man, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”. It is easy to trust in God when we feel great, things are well, and our difficulties are safely hidden away. The true mark of faith is whether we still trust in God when we are not doing well, when situations seem dire, and when our difficulties and deficiencies are exposed for all to see. Wavering trust is understandable but not ideal. We do well to remember Jesus’ encouragement and to be willing to confess the deficiencies in our trust in God.

God has promised to give all things to those who those who serve His Son, the Risen Lord, and we have confidence in this promise because He has already given us of His Son (Romans 8:32). Will we place our hope and confidence in that promise despite all the challenges we experience, all the frustrations we encounter, and all the disappointments we endure? Or will we begin to put a conditional where God has made an absolute? Let us trust in God, and be willing to confess to God the deficiencies in our trust so that we may learn to trust Him more!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maintaining Good Works

Faithful is the saying, and concerning these things I desire that thou affirm confidently, to the end that they who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men (Titus 3:8).

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of discipleship is maintaining good works. Yes, in many ways, there is a bit of a learning curve in Christianity; when we come to faith in Jesus, we have much to learn and gain from instruction and exhortation regarding how we should live. At that time we are also motivated by early enthusiasm for our faith. But what happens after we have been seeking to follow Jesus for awhile? How will we continue to be motivated toward good works?

Paul is aware of the challenge, and his solution might seem odd to some: further exhortation and reminder of what has transpired in the past (Titus 3:3-7).

It is easy for us to consider preaching and teaching only in terms of instruction; we have been conditioned by our society to associate a lack of proper conduct with a lack of knowledge. If we do not do what we are supposed to do, it is as if we have not been properly instructed. Nevertheless, most of the time we do know what we are to do; any Christian who has read a bit of Scripture and heard it preached frequently should have a decent understanding of what God expects from them. Much of the exhortation in Scripture is provided for Christians as a reminder of things they should already know (cf. 2 Peter 1:12-13). Doing righteousness and avoiding immorality is not “new news” to Christians; the greater danger is a weakening of zeal and developing complacency in one’s spiritual life (cf. Revelation 2:1-10).

Therefore, it is not strange or even surprising for Paul to insist on continual encouragement and exhortation, not to necessarily provide new information, but to constantly reinforce what has already been taught so as to keep such things at the forefront of the Christian’s mind, giving him or her greater strength to resist the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Hebrews 3:12-14). But what is the message the will truly motivate Christians to maintain good works?

Much of Paul’s letter to Titus is toward these ends. Jesus gave Himself up for Christians to redeem them from sin and to purify a people to Himself (Titus 2:11-14). Christians are to be subject to authorities, not speaking evil but being gentle and meek (Titus 3:1-2). But why?

Paul explains more fully in Titus 3:3-7 what he said simply in Titus 2:11-14: Christians were once in a terrible state. The list is unpleasant: foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hated (Titus 3:3). Salvation came through the kindness and mercy of God, not our own works; we were cleansed by the washing of regeneration (baptism) and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, not our own futile efforts (Titus 3:4-5). This allowed us to become heirs of the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:6-7). Paul intends to motivate Christians to good works through this message.

How will such a message motivate? There are three aspects to the message: our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, God’s love, mercy, and kindness reflected through Jesus in providing the means for our redemption, and our ability to hold to hope of eternity through Jesus. These three put together can encourage the believer to good works!

How can the reminder of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves motivate us to good works? By itself, it could not; it would lead to despair and paralysis on account of guilt. Without this reminder, however, it is easy to get puffed up and overconfident in our “holiness.” We are easily tempted to develop an “us” versus “them” attitude against those outside of the faith; it is tempting to feel as if “we” are better than “they.” This is why Paul says that we “also” were foolish, led astray by passion, etc.; on our own, we are no better off or superior in any way to those still lost in the world of sin. We were lost too at some point; we were terribly sinful as well. We could not save ourselves; this reality should keep us humble!

Thankfully, God provided the means by which we could be rescued from ourselves. We did not deserve it, nor could we; God has freely displayed love, kindness, mercy, and grace through Jesus and the redemption and reconciliation obtained through His life and death. This is an important piece of the story, but by no means the only one: without a recognition of our sin, we cannot appreciate the redemption we have obtained; without hope for the future, there would not be as much motivation to move forward. Nevertheless, atonement and reconciliation through Jesus is the centerpiece of the Gospel and of this message of encouragement: we could not save ourselves, and no deed can save us, but God has provided the means by which we can obtain cleansing through Jesus’ blood in baptism and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel makes it plain that Jesus’ death without Jesus’ resurrection would have been without power or sufficiency for anything (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). It is through Jesus’ resurrection that we maintain the hope for eternal life in our own resurrection. God wants us to be rescued and preserved now but with a view toward the resurrection of life for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

It is lamentable how the various truths in Titus 3:3-7 have been distorted and used against each other since Paul speaks with such harmony. We were lost in sin and could not save ourselves; God provided the means of atonement and reconciliation through Jesus; through this believers have hope for eternal life; these truths motivate believers to maintain good works. This pattern does not show contradiction or inconsistency, but balance. If we will honor God in our lives, it is because we maintain humility, understanding that we are no better than anyone else and cannot save ourselves; it is because we remain thankful, always keeping Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in mind; it is because we can look forward with confidence in the resurrection, which itself infuses the present life with purpose and meaning. When we remain humble, thankful, and forward-looking, we will devote ourselves to the good works for which our Creator made us (Ephesians 2:10).

As humans, we are weak, and constantly in need of exhortation and encouragement. We do well to always keep all aspects of the big picture in mind: our former state, the means by which we obtained our present state, our future hope, and all of those to motivate us toward obedience now. Let us seek to perpetually honor and glorify Christ through our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Peacemakers

“Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

In our sin-sick world, conflict seems to be ever-present. Some nations fight against other nations; plenty more maintain strained, tense, and tenuous relationships with each other. People of different clans, tribes, ethnicities, and other such groups of people nurse disagreements and conflicts with other, similar groups. Within extended families there always seem to be some relatives who cannot stand each other and who perpetually fight or remain at odds with each other. Even within immediate families, husbands, wives, and children have plenty over which to fight and maintain tensions and hostilities. For that matter, there is internal conflict between the spirit and the flesh (Galatians 5:17)!

The reality of conflict is sad enough; the promotion and fostering of conflict is even worse. And yet the sad reality is evident: conflict, tension, and difficulty generates interest, money, and power. If you can make a television show where different people are constantly in conflict with each other, you will have an easier time getting a strong viewership than if everyone in the story is at peace with one another. Politicians tend to get more people to vote for them if they can demonize the opposing candidate as “the other,” focusing on the differences and the negatives rather than the similarities and positives. The stronger the rivalry between different teams, groups of people, and the like, the stronger the passions, and thus the greater the interest. In the world, in almost every arena of life, “dividers” receive interest, power, money, and fame; “uniters” may receive lip service for their work, but will never generate the same interest, power, money, or fame as the “dividers.”

And so Jesus, as He continues to pronounce as blessed, fortunate, or happy those who are not normally recognized as such (or, for that matter, recognized at all), declares peacemakers blessed, for such shall be called “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When considering these Beatitudes, as they are often called, it is easy to gloss over the “rewards” which the fortunate ones will receive. They all seem to be some variant of the saved, members of the Kingdom, or those who will obtain the promises God has provided. Yet the “reward” of being called the “sons of God” has great significance: “sons of God,” in the Old Testament, refers most often to spiritual beings in God’s presence (cf. Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7). Jesus will later reckon those who obtain the resurrection of life as “sons of God” (Luke 20:36); it is for their revelation that the creation eagerly waits in Romans 8:19. “Sons of God” is a description indicating close association with both God the Father and Jesus the Son; to be called a “son of God” would be a great honor indeed.

So why do the peacemakers receive such a blessing? We can understand why through Galatians 3:26, in which Paul declares that all believers who seek to obey Christ are sons of God, through faith, in Jesus Christ. How is it possible that we could be sons of God by trusting in Jesus and through what Jesus accomplished? As Paul makes evident in Ephesians 2:11-18, Jesus allowed all of us to be reconciled both to God and to one another by becoming the ultimate Peacemaker: He killed the hostility between the Jews and the Gentiles by bearing the cross and in so doing eliminating the Law and its trappings that served to divide the Jews from the Gentiles, and brought both together in Him in one body.

Those who make peace, therefore, are as Jesus, seeking to kill hostility and reconcile man back together with God and with one another. One can see Jesus’ entire purpose and mission in terms of this reconciliation (cf. Romans 5:6-11): since God is Three in One and One in Three, maintaining relational unity, anything that serves to divide man from God and one another is accursed, but that which reconciles and restores man in relationship with his God and with one another glorifies God (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2, John 17:20-23, Galatians 5:17-24). Therefore, those who work to make peace between opposing parties reflects God and His will within Himself, for mankind, and with mankind. The great honor of being known as “sons of God” makes perfect sense: to make peace among people is to share in close association with the work of God.

This does not mean that peacemaking is easy; all of us have a tendency toward division, hostility, and tension toward others, and when we see different groups feuding with each other for whatever reason, we have a natural tendency to want to stay out of it and get far away. We also must make sure that we do not confuse peacemaking with meddling or being a busybody. We must also recognize the multitude of forces in the world that work against peace: many such forces unabashedly maintain the face of evil and hostility, perhaps even in almost demonic terms (cf. Ephesians 6:12), but plenty of conflict, tension, and division masquerade with “holy” and “pious” facades. The truth of God must never be compromised (Galatians 1:6-9); yet a significant aspect of God’s truth is His desire to reconcile all men to Himself and to one another (John 17:20-23, Romans 5:6-11), and the promotion and maintenance of strife, divisions, and sects are always inconsistent with God’s revealed truth, remaining works of the flesh (cf. Galatians 5:19-21).

Peacemaking has always been a hard thing to do and a tough path to take; there are always plenty of forces that work against it. But the path of peacemaking is the path of Christ; to reconcile mankind with God and with one another is the essence of God’s purpose in Christ. Let us work to promote and advance peace, ever thankful for Jesus’ peacemaking that allows us to be sons of God, reconciled back with the Father!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Discipline

It is for chastening that ye endure; God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father chasteneth not? (Hebrews 12:7).

Discipline; chastisement: we do not like the sound of these words. They may bring back unpleasant memories from childhood. Even the Bible makes it clear that no one really enjoys discipline when it happens (cf. Hebrews 12:11). How many times have we schemed in life in attempts to avoid discipline and/or chastisement? And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we understand the need for and value of discipline.

The word translated as chastening (or, in other versions, discipline) is the Greek paideia, which can refer to the whole training and education of children, and for adults, that which leads to correcting errors, limiting the exercise of passions, and actual chastisement for bad behavior. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul describes Scripture as providing “instruction” (paideia) in righteousness; in Ephesians 6:4, he encourages parents to raise their children in the “nurture” (or “discipline”; paideia) and admonition of the Lord.

We do well to keep the breadth of meaning of paideia in mind when we consider discipline, since it is very easy for us to focus on the negative. “Discipline” or “chastisement” tends to be associated only with some kind of penalty or punishment for misbehavior; that automatic association is unfortunate and a distortion. Just providing (or suffering) a penalty or punishment is not discipline: punitive acts alone do not change or alter behaviors. Instead, the aim of any kind of discipline ought to be corrective; any punishment or penalty should be designed with correction of improper behavior in mind.

We normally associate discipline and chastisement, as seen above, with raising children. This remains a most critical aspect to discipline, for children will grow up and have to learn about the boundaries of proper behavior somehow or another. The only question involves the quality of that instruction and from whom it is received: will instruction and discipline be based in the message of the Lord Jesus or not? Will the child ever learn truly proper behavior, or will they just learn to go along with the boundaries society or the law imposes upon them? How much will they be taught by their parents, and how many lessons will they have to learn through their own mistakes?

It is easy to imagine discipline only in terms of growing up from childhood into adulthood, but discipline does not end because we have left home and are now “grown up.” We must maintain discipline within our own lives, whether through learned behavior or by external restraints. We have to live within our means; we have to conduct ourselves within the boundary of certain standards. We will be punished in various ways by not abiding within these boundaries.

If we believe in God, trust in Him, and seek to do His will, we will receive discipline and chastisement from His hand (Hebrews 12:3-11). Such a view seems sharp and harsh; too many already have a view of God as an authoritarian disciplinarian, and passages like this do not seem to help that perspective. People want to envision that God provides all the good things in their lives, but then will blame God for abandoning them when bad things happen. But let us hear out what the Hebrew author is telling us.

The Hebrew author makes it clear that the problem is with our views and expectations, not God Himself. After all, we have all seen overly permissive parents and the royal terrors and spoiled brats coming out of that relationship. Most of us can look back in our own lives and understand the value and benefit received from proper discipline and chastisement that we received from a figure of some authority. We all need to learn boundaries and understand that there are negative consequences for transgressing boundaries; there is not one of us who can live among other people and not learn this lesson. And since, as human beings, we are all fairly hard-headed, we must pay a penalty or suffer a consequence if we will ever really learn to respect certain boundaries. We did not like discipline at the time: we did not enjoy punishments, we did not enjoy homework, we did not enjoy having to put in a lot of work in order to gain some reward or benefit, but through it all we were supposed to learn to respect boundaries, that we are not entitled to receive anything without working for it, that in order to accomplish anything of value we must devote our time and energy to them, and so on and so forth.

This is exactly what the Hebrew author is saying about discipline (Hebrews 12:3-11); he shows how the example of earthly fathers and the discipline they impose upon their children is a (albeit imperfect) type of the reality of our relationship with God. Just because we have reached the age of 18 (or 28, 38, 58, 78…) does not mean that we no longer need discipline; if anything, as we reach mature adulthood, the necessity of discipline is more evident. God provides discipline and chastisement to His children precisely because He loves them and wants them to live well! Without that discipline, God would be a permissive parent– in the words of the Hebrew author, if God did not discipline us, He would be treating us like illegitimate children! If we are illegitimate, we have no share in Him! How tragic that would be!

As in childhood, so in life: we have lessons to learn in every situation. There are wholesome lessons to be learned through hard effort and success; there are wholesome lessons to be learned when things go wrong and/or when we suffer. Sometimes we might experience pain, misery, suffering, or other such difficulties so that we might learn to stay within the proper boundaries of God’s will and to develop peace and righteousness. It is rarely enough to just intellectually grasp such things; we need to experience them if we will learn from them.

Therefore, in times of difficulty, let us not assume that God has abandoned us. We might be experiencing a moment of chastisement. Even if it is not some kind of punishment or penalty for our excess or transgression, we can still learn discipline through the experience, having our faith refined and developing the characteristics of self-control, peace, patience, and faithfulness, which seem to only develop through suffering. Even if it is unpleasant, let us be willing to endure discipline; without it, we cannot be children of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Not to Direct His Steps

O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10:23).

Some of the more “amusing” things that small children do involves the plans they devise. As they are trying to sort out things like logic, cause and effect, argument, and such like, they find themselves in all sorts of trouble for doing things they thought would work but failed miserably. This is especially true for boys; it seems that one of the parent’s most important tasks in raising young men is to keep them from killing or maiming themselves.

The problem with humanity is our presumption of getting beyond this stage in life. We get to a point when we think we have most things somewhat figured out, and we have a way forward. And yet time and time again, in various ways for various reasons, we find ourselves in all sorts of trouble.

Jeremiah saw such trouble coming for Judah. The people put their trust in metallic images of their own manufacture; the leaders of Judah were involved in high-stakes political maneuvering. They all thought they had things sorted out and were acting in their own best interest. But Jeremiah knew the word that had come from YHWH, and it was all for naught. The idols would be quickly proven worthless; the political maneuvering would end with the Babylonian army at Jerusalem’s gates and Judah’s supposed “allies” far away or conquered. The men of Judah did not consult YHWH for direction; they did not turn to him and away from their idolatry. They would soon learn how foolish that decision had been.

In such a condition Jeremiah had good reason to utter the words of Jeremiah 10:23. The way of man is not in himself. It is not in man who walks to direct his steps. When humans get to thinking that they can figure it out, things start going very badly.

Paul describes the degeneracy well in Romans 1:18-32. When people start thinking they know better, they rebel from the way of God. God allows this rebellion and gives them over to the consequences of this rebellion. Humans then invent their own gods based on what they can perceive in the universe. They then give themselves over to commit immorality and give full vent to their animalistic impulses. Meanwhile, virtue is cast aside.

It never takes too long to see this degeneracy in action. We most assuredly see it in our own day with a generation which does not speak a coherent language of morality and which is content with individualistic moralism. The god of this age seems to be the self: what I think, what I want, what is best for “#1.” It certainly seems that many people today actively snub their nose at any concept that it is not within them to direct their own steps.

But how well is this turning out for everyone? Are we all better off because we believe we are the pilots of our own lives? Hardly. Pain, misery, and suffering abound, and a lot of it is a direct consequence of our choices and behavior. People today seem content to lose their humanity in order to keep consuming and producing, thinking they are in control of it all.

The details might be different, but the story has been the same throughout time. People in Jeremiah’s day thought they knew better. People in Jesus’ and Paul’s day thought the same. Many of our ancestors did as well.

We do well to learn this fundamental lesson: no, we are not good at directing our own steps. No, it is not within a man to figure out how he should go. We are not much better off than when we were children and did things that seem quite stupid on reflection but somehow made sense to us then. When we try to figure it all out, things get distorted, because despite our pretensions, we do not know everything. We do not know much of anything when it comes down to it. The way we live, what we choose to do, and what we choose not to do exemplify that!

Once we learn that lesson we can turn to God and follow His steps. We can learn from Jesus, the exact imprint of the divine nature, and walk as He walked (Hebrews 1:3, 1 John 2:6). When we go in the way our Creator intended us to go, we will find ourselves truly human again, since we have returned to intended purpose of humanity. We will not go after the distortions, perversions, and degeneracy that comes with believing ourselves more important and better informed than we truly are.

It takes a lot of humility to learn from God; there is always that impulse within us seeking to go its own way. But how well has that ever gone for us? Let us learn our lesson, not trusting in ourselves, but instead placing our trust in God through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

To Will and to Work

So then, my beloved, even as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who worketh in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

There are certain passages of Scripture that seem to juxtapose contradictory principles. In many ways, such passages are the most illuminating for us: they indicate how we put things together.

Paul’s statements in Philippians 2:12-13 certainly fit the bill. He first tells the believers to work out their own salvation; he then tells them that it is God who works in them to will and to work. Little wonder, then, that these verses are used in the battleground regarding God’s work and man’s work.

Many seek to emphasize the first statement: believers are to obey, and this involves working out their own salvation with fear and trembling. They then conclude that it is up to man to follow God’s will, to work out their salvation themselves. Yes, God works in Philippians 2:13, but it is easy for such people to minimize the second statement while emphasizing the first statement.

Others seek to emphasize the second statement: sure, Paul talks about believers working and obeying, but see the conclusion? They work out their salvation with fear and trembling because it is really God who is working in them. They then conclude that God is the only actor involved. Yes, humans should probably follow God, but it is easy for such people to minimize the first statement while emphasizing the second statement.

Believers are to obey, working out their own salvation, but it is God who works in them to will and to work. As we can see, such a statement easily causes fits. Everyone tries to explain it within their system. But Paul is not necessarily working in any such system. He is not confused; he is not suffering from some kind of split personality issue. He knows very well what he is saying. We do well to step back patiently and try to make sense of both statements in harmony, not in opposition.

These verses flow from what Paul has said throughout the chapter. He begins with the exhortation to love, peace, humility, and joint participation among believers (Philippians 2:1-4). The believers are to have the mind of Christ Jesus, who greatly humbled Himself and God glorified Him and highly exalted Him (Philippians 2:5-11). It is because of these things that believers are to obey Jesus, working out their own salvation (Philippians 2:12). This is because it is God working in them to will and to work (Philippians 2:13).

The challenge with this passage is really not with God, Paul, or the passage itself. The challenge is with us. Paul sees no contradiction between believers working and God working. Paul does not think that believers obeying the risen Christ in any way violates God’s sovereignty, nor does it somehow cheapen His grace– it is entirely possible only through God’s grace. Likewise, Paul does not envision God’s working in the believer as compromising the believer’s free moral agency.

How does this work? The order presented in this passage is important. The believer must obey, seeking to “work out” his or her salvation. This obedience is based in trust and rooted in God’s grace, for the believer understands that their standing only exists because of what God has done through Christ (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-10). But what does this obedience look like? How does one “work out” one’s salvation? By unaided moral striving? That did not work before we believed; it will not work now. To obey is to submit to the Lordship of Christ– we are to submit before God. Whatever power we can muster we use to direct our will toward God’s will (cf. Matthew 7:21-23); we must beg God in prayer to give us the strength, power, and grace to be aligned with His will (cf. Ephesians 3:20-21, Philippians 4:13). We must submit as servants for the Lord, no longer seeking our paths, but seeking to live for Him in Him (Galatians 2:20).

Therefore, to obey and to “work out” that salvation, the believer must submit completely and without reservation to God (cf. Romans 12:1). Then God will work in the believer to will and work for His good pleasure. God is not then violating the believer’s free will; instead, He actually accomplishes the will of the believer in a way that the believer could never do through his own unaided effort. All of us fall short; when we directed our own lives, it did not go very well (Romans 3:23, Titus 3:3-8). God is able and willing to provide the strength for us to endure (Ephesians 6:10-18), but we have to want that strength and pray for that strength. It will not be forced upon us. That is not how love works.

Are believers to work? Yes. Is God at work? Yes. We should be seeking to align our will with God’s will, and to allow God to use us as He sees fit for His purposes. Does that mean that we become passive agents? No; God works in mysterious ways, and we are going to have to expend effort if we are going to advance His purposes for His pleasure. Consider all the men of faith in Scripture and all the energies they expended in faith; yet would any of us deny that God worked in them and through them for His good pleasure? So it must be with us.

Let us not be fooled into going to extremes and causing contradiction where none exists. Let us not seek to vaunt our own responsibilities nor seek to abdicate them; instead, let us learn humility and to submit to God and His direction, through His prompting in Scripture and throughout our lives, praying that He may work in us to will and work for His good pleasure for His glory for all time!

Ethan R. Longhenry